All Aggro’d Up
By Martin Aston, Mojo December 2013
A manager-cum-entrepreneur with a penchant for anti-establishment, provocation, Malcolm McLaren wrote the book on that action plan, but he wasn't the first. Five years before the Sex Pistols' stage debut, John Fenton was plotting in the same King's Road vicinity. He’d been a partner in Seltaeb, the firm formed in 1963 to handle The Beatles’ merchandise before Brian Epstein realised his error in farming it out. Fenton moved to publishing at Schroeder Music, where he met truck driver/budding songwriter Terry Stamp.
“He’d written a song, Tobacco Ash Sunday, about how gloomy everything was," Fenton recalls, "which was so much better than the mundane stuff coming through the doors.”
Fenton moved on to Essex Music where he initiated a writer's workshop, and introduced Stamp to former Thunderclap Newman bassist Jim Avery. “Terry was a sort of folky songwriter, I was the heavy rock riff injection,” claims Avery. Pete Townshend, who'd assembled Thunderclap Newman in 1969 and produced their Number 1 single Something ln The Air, was about to pen Won't Get Fooled Again. Revolution was in the air. "The French riots of 1968 were phenomenal," says Avery. "We liked to think it could happen here. We believed we could change the world. The Beatles thought that too.”
lt was the Fabs who inadvertently; propelled Fenton's own revolution. “John wanted to be noticed, he had some complex," Stamp contends. "When his first wife remarried Apple's Neil Aspinall, he was in Apple's shadow and I think he wanted songs that would stick it to The Beatles.”
“Neil was a good friend, and I liked Lennon, I just thought The Beatles' music was too MOR," Fenton retorts. "I told Terry, Let's do something with balls, I'm tired of hippy, psychedelic shit, let’s document what's really happening.”
Stamp maintains Fenton also had, “this crazy idea for our album, to put a low frequency (seven cycles] that would destroy the stylus at the end of side two. You were dealing with that kind of person.”
Fenton conceived a contentious but PR-worthy name for the project: Third World War. An album rapidly coagulated around songs like Preaching Violence, Working Class Man, Ml5's Alive...
"l wanted to give a taste of what l'd lived, and what was in the newspapers,” says Stamp. "Fenton could never have written those lyrics; he'd never worked in a factory or driven a truck."
Avery found a guitarist and drummer, while Fenton persuaded The Rolling Stones' brass players, Jim Price and Bobby Keys, to chip in. Authenticated by Stamp’s gruff holler, Third World War's musical tone was typical of the era's heavy, blues boogie, not dissimilar to anarchic renegades The Edgar Broughton Band. The heaviness was leavened with folkier material such as Get Out Of Bed, You Dirty Red and one exquisite ballad in Stardom Road, inspired by Stamp’s bitter memory of a session musician unable to equate this burly (15 stone) truck driver with the pretty melodies he could write.
However, Stamp was also penning lyrics worthy of a Marxist proto-punk, such as, “Up from the slums and the factory grime.. . Go let your Molotov off!" Britain's rock scene was totally unprepared. The band hadn’t played live before the album’s release, and Melody Maker's Roy Hollingworth concluded, "They are the worst band I have ever heard perform, ever... I felt like soaking myself in vodka, setting myself alight and flinging my body from a balcony in protest.”
Fenton had the quote blown up and flyposted across London, while Avery says it made them darlings of the underground press. But apart from cult appreciation in France and Germany, it came to nothing. The economic slump that precipitated punk's explosion had yet to arrive: "People wanted to be entertained," Fenton sighs, "not depressed."
Essex Music still funded a second album, but founder David Platz objected to Coshing Old Lady Blues and would not release the album on his Fly label unless the offending song was removed. Fenton refused, and although the intervention of Pete Townshend saw Third World War II released in 1973 on The Who'sTrack label, the money ran out and family man Stamp returned to truck driving. He released a solo album in 1975 and, resident in the US since 1976, two albums of Americana this century. Avery played sessions and, after beating alcoholism, reunited with Stamp for an acoustic blues album, The Complete Chicago Recordings, engineered by Steve Albini.
Albini isn't their only name admirer; Joe Strummer was a dedicated fan, while John Lydon once recited Ascension Day’s lyrics to Fenton, "word for word". Marc Almond’s cover of Stardom Road is the most recent tribute.
The curated reissue that would give Third World War its posthumous due, though, is unlikely to happen soon. Fenton says he holds the rights to both records, but won't release anything, Avery says, "until he gets five million quid or something".
"I didn't earn a penny from those albums either," Fenton says. "The reissues are just not on my list of priorities. I’m very proud of Third World War but I’ve moved on."